Wednesday, 3 June 2009

On sport

I’ve been reading Barthes on Sport, a little book written years ago by Roland Barthes but only just published in English. It’s the usual Barthesian mix of brilliant perceptions and lapidary statements that brook no argument. This passage, on English football, is typical:

In sport, man does not confront man directly. There enters between them an intermediary, a stake, a machine, a puck, or a ball. And this thing is the very symbol of things: it is in order to possess it, to master it, that one is strong, adroit, courageous … Ultimately man knows certain forces, certain conflicts, joys and agonies; sport expresses them, liberates them, consumes them without ever letting anything be destroyed … In sport, man experiences life’s fatal combat, but this combat is distanced by the spectacle, reduced to its forms, cleared of its effects, of its dangers, and of its shames: it loses its noxiousness, not its brilliance or its meaning … What is sport? Sport answers this question by another question: who is best? But to this question of the ancient duels, sport gives a new meaning: for man’s excellence is sought here only in relation to things. Who is the best man to overcome the resistance of things, the immobility of nature? Who is the best to work the world, to give it to men … to all men? That is what sport says.

OK, I’ll bear this in mind the next time I see a premiership footballer throwing the ball away petulantly, or a manager going red on the touchline and pointing at his watch, or Chelsea players screaming at the referee and claiming that the whole of UEFA is corrupt because they have been denied a couple of penalty appeals. Or perhaps I will give the last word to George Orwell who said that ‘sport is war minus the shooting’.

PS Here are a couple of early reviews of my new book, On Roads, from the monthlies:

There was also a nice one by Giles Foden in Conde Nast Traveller but that doesn’t seem to be on the internet.


  1. There should be a copy of Barthes' book in the dressing room of every professional football club.
    It would be the duty of the manager or coach to read a relevant extract from the book immediately before leaving the dressing room for the kick off.
    If this is likely to cause confusion the alternative strategy would be to place the copy in the dressing room of the opposition instead.

  2. Another classic definition of sport appeared in the Sunday Times back sometime in the mid-70s. It was quoting a French sports teacher, Jean-Marie Broehm, who must have studied sociology at a time when it took leave of its senses (either that, or it gained something in translation). I committed it to memory (sad, eh?) as a party piece:
    "Sport is an armoured apparatus for coercion, an instrument of bourgeois hegemony in the Gramscian sense dominated by a phallocratic and fascistoid ideology of virility. It is a mechanisation of the body conceived as a robot ruled by the principle of productivity."